Dear Dr. Andrea,
I could use some advice about how healthy it is to be stalking other people online. I know that makes me sound bad, and I am not doing this in a threatening way, but more a curious one. When I meet someone new, I Zillow their house to see how much it’s worth and potentially how much money they have. I Google my co-workers’ spouses and peek at their social media to see what they’re like. I poke around online for whatever I can find out about guys my friends are dating, neighbors, even other moms I meet in a toddler playgroup. I can’t really tell what I’m after here, but it’s become such a habit that it’s almost like I can’t stop. Part of me feels like everybody probably does this, and it’s harmless fun for when I need a distraction. But then another part of me feels like this makes me a bad person and I need to quit cold turkey.
— Yes, I’m stalking you, too
Of course this doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. This type of curiosity is a natural human instinct, and the technology we carry around in our pockets every day makes it easier than ever to give in to every single one of these whims, no matter how momentary they are. But just because this doesn’t make you a bad person doesn’t mean it’s a good habit, and it could indeed end up causing you harm (to say nothing of the ethical implications of snooping).
What sticks out to me is that this is taking up a lot of your time and mental energy, seemingly against your will, and it’s bringing you away from the person that you want to be. That’s generally not great for any habit, whether it’s Zillowing people’s houses, biting your nails, or binging YouTube videos on eyebrow plumper. While eradicating this altogether is an unrealistic goal, you should aim to get to a place where you’re managing the urges rather than the urges managing you.
To make an urge feel more ignore-able, you’ve got to observe it — recognize it, label it, understand what’s driving it, and be willing to step outside of it. Then, take the practice step of postponing the action. So, when you feel the instinct, and your hand automatically goes for your phone, tell yourself you’ll wait 15 minutes before giving in. Sure, you may still do it 15 minutes later, but at least you’ve forced yourself to be able to ride the urge and break the cycle at least temporarily. That weakens it over time.
Then, put more concrete boundaries in place. Be specific, and reward yourself each time you abstain. Maybe you ban the real estate apps, or limit yourself to one quick Google search per person without actually clicking on the results. Maybe co-workers are fair game but their partners are not; maybe you set a time limit or search limit per week and truly keep track. The key is to quantify this and hold yourself accountable, celebrating small triumphs, rather than just generally giving in to the urge as some big, insurmountable force and feeling bad about it in a way that makes you even more helpless.
Finally, why not do some real digging about the “why?” What’s the emotional stuff behind the itch, and what does “satisfying” it mean — and what other things could you do instead? Maybe you are intellectually bored or have voracious curiosity that would be better served in other ways. Or there may be areas of your life that you feel particularly anxious or insecure about, or unsatisfied with, and your searching behavior is a desperate attempt to fill a hole or give yourself a boost. Or, even more broadly, maybe you have learned that you’re only valuable as compared to someone else: that classic yardstick so many of us carry around that kills self-worth (or keeps it from developing in the first place.) You say that you can’t really tell what you’re after in these instances. But figuring that out is the best way, bar none, to wean yourself off the habit long-term.